Here’s another kerfuffle that two academics from New Zealand called to my attention. I am letting one of them comment on a recent exchange about a paper involving Maori burning of land, which apparently produced carbon deposits in Antarctica.
The paper below was published in Nature last month, and suggests an explanation for high rates of carbon deposition found in Antarctic ice cores starting about 700 years ago: levels three times higher than in previous centuries. As the abstract below shows, the most likely explanation was soot being blown towards Antarctica from either Tasmania, New Zealand, or Patagonia. But the record of fire use (“paleofire” studies), the directionality of carbon distribution, plus the timing (Maori settled New Zealand around 1300), suggests suggests that New Zealand was the source, probably from Maori burning of forests or fields that caused ancillary wildfires. Here’s a paragraph from the paper (“BB” is “biomass burning”).
Palaeofire records from Patagonia and Tasmania, as well as modelling, indicate that BB prior to European colonization was driven primarily by large-scale climate variations, and that BB in both regions was low for much of the past 700 years when the climate in Patagonia and Tasmania was relatively we (Fig. 1). Indigenous hunter-gatherer populations had been living in Tasmania and Patagonia for millennia before European arrival and probably used small-scale fires for land management However, there is little historical or proxy evidence of large changes in anthropogenic BB before European settlement in the 19th century.
New Zealand was among the last habitable places on Earth to be colonized by humans and charcoal-based fire records indicate a very different BB history than Tasmania and Patagonia. Wildfire was absent or insignificant before about 1300 but widespread during the past 700 years (Fig. 1), with pronounced increases in fire occurrence attributed to arrival and colonization of New Zealand by the Māori and their use of fire for land clearing and management.
For several reasons, this paper angered those who accept Maori “other ways of knowing”, both for its assumed conclusions (“Maori caused pollution”) but also because no Maori were involved in the investigation; the implication being that their different points of view might have changed the paper’s conclusions. I’m no expert on this, but the degree of anger this paper inspired was conveyed to me by a retired academic from New Zealand, who sent me these links. His/her commentary is indented:
I thought you might be interested in the piece at the link you’ll find below. It appeared a couple of months ago on the website, Scoop, whose purpose is largely the dissemination of press releases. However, they also publish commentaries by prominent journalists and, from time to time, ask experts to comment on significant events and on scientific findings which might be of wider interest than just the particular field in which the research was conducted. The piece below falls into the latter category.
It was occasioned by the publication in Nature of an article that suggested elevated levels of black carbon in Antarctic ice cores might be attributable to wildfires set during the early period of Maori settlement in New Zealand/Aotearoa. [See the paper and its link above.] In this case, three local “experts” were asked to respond to the findings and it’s those responses that I thought you might find of interest.The first response teeters on the brink of invoking Maori ways of knowing but doesn’t quite tumble into the abyss. But it does suggest that the researchers should have asked Maori before publishing their article or, better still, involved Maori in the research itself.
Dr Priscilla Wehi, Director, Te Pūnaha Matatini Centre of Research Excellence in Complex Systems, comments:
“It is scientifically spectacular to see an analysis of Antarctic ice cores show fire patterns in Aotearoa over the last millennia so clearly. The topic is fascinating, but does it miss what we already know in our research community? The work led me to reflect on diversity and inclusion in science. A swathe of research tells us that diverse teams create excellent science, and there is gender variation in the author list. Other research has visualised citation and collaboration patterns in science and concluded that research from Australasia and the’ global south’ is often missing from the work of our European and North American colleagues. Although some well-known New Zealand research is cited here, it remains that other excellent research does not seem to have global purchase.
“The authors, based across northern America, Europe and Australia, also apparently lack New Zealand collaboration despite the central topic of Māori burning and fire use. ‘Helicopter science’, where research is led and conducted by those who live and work far from the subject of their work, is currently under scrutiny in the research community. An important critique is that this approach is likely to miss important insights. The ethics of such ‘helicopter science’ have been debated widely over the last year or so, as concerns over the exclusion of different groups from research, including Indigenous peoples, have escalated. Indeed, this issue has been noted by the very journal in which this study is published.
“Issues that have already been researched locally – from dust transport to Antarctica through to population estimates of Māori settlement – are often identified by local collaborators who, one hopes, have additionally been building the next generation of researchers in the nation where the focus of the research is situated. All of this leads me to return to this paper, which I found fascinating, and ask – how much better could this have been, were it more inclusive in its approach?”
My answer is, “We don’t know, but I doubt it would have been better unless they found a Maori scientist who had knowledge equal or superior to that of the scientists who actually participated.
My correspondent in NZ continues:
The second seems a much more reasoned assessment of the sort one might expect from a practising scientist.
Here’s an excerpt from review #2, which is indeed from a practicing scientist She points out the possibility that in the 16th and 17th century there could have been soot contributions from Australia and Patagonia, but leaves untouched the Nature-paper evidence that the carbon emissions 700 years ago came from Maori land-burning:
Dr Holly Winton, Rutherford Postdoctoral Fellow, Antarctic Research Centre, Victoria University of Wellington, comments:
. . . “Surprisingly, a new study by McConnell et al. (2021) in Nature suggests that New Zealand has been the dominant source of black carbon to a large sector of Antarctica since the 13th century. An array of black carbon records from ice cores clustered in western East Antarctica and the Antarctica Peninsula were examined over the last 2000 years. Black carbon concentrations in the Antarctic Peninsula record dramatically increased in the 13th century well above previous levels with the highest concentrations in the 16th and 17th centuries.
“The authors associate this with the arrival, and land management practices, of Māori in New Zealand. The Antarctic-New Zealand connection was made by comparing the ice core record to a charcoal record from a lake sediment core in New Zealand which is indicative of local biomass burning. While the magnitude of black carbon change is evident in both records from the 13th century until today, the trend is not. Ice core black carbon peaks in the 16th and 17th century. At the same time, the New Zealand charcoal record declines. This disparity leaves me wondering about additional black carbon sources from Australia and Patagonia during this time, changes in the hydrological cycle or changes in the transport processes that drive the variability in the ice core black carbon record. Australian and Patagonian black carbon was ruled out as charcoal records from these source regions increased well before the 13th century.
My correspondent continues:
However, it is the third response that I thought would most interest you, though “horrify” might be a more apt way of expressing it. For far from teetering on the brink of the abyss this so-called expert (and it’s worth noting that her background is in adult education and not in any recognised scientific discipline) plunges right in, exposing the reader to Matauranga Maori “Science” in all its “glorious” mythology. I think you’ll agree that it strongly reinforces the points you and others have been making over the past few days.
Finally, as worrying as the third response might be for what it shows “other ways of knowing” actually involve, it also highlights a growing problem for scientific research in New Zealand, one which might not be immediately apparent to anyone unfamiliar with our state bureaucracy. In the third paragraph, you’ll see the following:
Obviously these authors have not caught up with the positive changes in research and science in this country where Matauranga Maori within the MBIE Vision Matauranga policy demands Maori involvement, Maori participation and Maori leadership. This involvement starts from the basic premise that we as Maori will tell their own stories and control their own knowledge.
Now, MBIE is New Zealand’s Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment so, in her naivety (or more probably ignorance) the third respondent clearly thinks that science is whatever a New Zealand government department defines it to be. Moreover, it would appear that she also thinks that scientists, wherever they might be in the world, are remiss for not recognizing this and amending their practice accordingly.
Of course one could simply smile at the naivety/ignorance of that particular individual (though my inclination would be for a rather less benign response) but to do only that would be to ignore a rather disturbing fact, for one of MBIE’s prime functions is to promote and fund scientific research in New Zealand. So, if the official MBIE view is that Matauranga Maori is of equal status to what you and I and most rational people would consider Science to be, what does that portend for the future of scientific research in New Zealand?
And here is the whole third response:
Associate Professor Sandy Morrison, Acting Dean of the Faculty of Māori and Indigenous Studies, University of Waikato; co-lead for Vision Mātauranga, Antarctic Science Platform; lead for Vision Mātauranga, Deep South National Science Challenge, comments:
“The association of Māori with fire is longstanding. Mahuika goddess of fire gifted her fingernails of flames to enable us to have fire for warmth; fire for sustenance; fire to provide nutrients for the earth. We attribute and honour Mahuika. She is part of our whakapapa. Her mokopuna Māui attempted to reduce her power by tricking her into giving up all of her fingernails but she was able to outwit him, planting her flame into the trees so that fire would be freely available. Fire also defined our boundaries of authority as expressed in this whakataukī ‘ka wera hoki i te ahi, e mana ana anō’ meaning ‘while the fire burns, the mana is effective.’ We claimed occupation of our territories by the principle of ahi kaa, that is, we kept our home fires burning.
“Through our Ātua, gods and goddesses, we developed deeply embedded practises and rituals and our relationship with fire was interdependent, reciprocal, beneficial and also very practical. Upon arrival to these lands, we relied on the aruhe or fernroot as part of our staple diet. We relied on the moa and other birdlife for food. Burning became part of our practises; regular burning allowed plants to regenerate and some of the minerals in the ash provided rich nutrients for the land. Regular burning facilitated hunting and access to hunting grounds. Such practises would be typical for any newcomers creating homes on unfamiliar lands to allow time to become acquainted with seasonal cycles, climatic conditions, finding the best places to lay out their plantations and hence their new settlements or kainga. No doubt some burning would not have been controlled as well as they may have planned, but this can be understood. It is not unlike any other peoples adjusting to new lands and new conditions.
“The internationally authored paper by scientists who examined Antarctic ice core records to find that carbon emissions increased significantly from wildfires after Māori first arrived in Aotearoa is devoid of context, devoid of cultural understandings and is yet another example of what we have grown to expect from western science. It relies on measurements, modelling and silo thinking and the paper whether intentional or not, posits Māori as the ‘naughty’ offenders. Moreover, it reeks of scientific arrogance with its implicit assumption that somehow Māori have a lot to account for in terms of contributing to carbon emissions and destroying the pristine environment of the Southern Oceans and Antarctica. Goodness knows why Māori are primarily emphasised, and for what purpose this article was written. Obviously these authors have not caught up with the positive changes in research and science in this country where Mātauranga Māori within the MBIE Vision Mātauranga policy demands Māori involvement, Māori participation and Māori leadership. This involvement starts from the basic premise that we as Māori will tell our own stories and control our own knowledge. Mātauranga Māori is a living knowledge system rooted in our environmental encounters which was outward looking and relationship based. We are connected in kinship even to fire through Mahuika as the spiritual goddess of fire. Similarly we have relationships with the Southern Oceans and the Antarctica through our stories of voyaging and navigation and food gathering. Our relationships with marine life, bird life and the oceans are well recorded through our intergenerational continuum and held in our tribal lore. These are places to which we also have longstanding relationships where we will not intentionally embark on destructive practises. The principle of kaitikaitanga or guardianship is a mantel of responsibility for us and one we willingly share to improve the wellbeing of our oceans and planet. Please do not distort your scientific evidence nor hide behind the intricacies of scientific modelling to position Māori as the problem. I am sure that you can do better than that.”
Dr. Morrison’s points appear to be these.
a.) She evinces a tacit acceptance of New Zealand “ways of knowing”, though it’s not clear what she believes.
b.) Yes, Maori burned land, but they had to because it was their deeply embedded in their mythology-derived practices. And yes, some fires got out of control. But that was not the point of the Nature paper, which is not pointing a finger of blame at the Maori. It’s just an investigation of where carbon spikes in Antarctic ice cores came from.
c.) The third paragraph appears devoid of understanding of the Nature paper itself. Note that the arrogance said to exist in the paper (i.e., “the Maori polluted Antarctica!”) is nowhere to be found in that paper. The purpose of the paper is obvious, though Morrison doesn’t see it: to account for an anomalous carbon spike. Does she not know that scientists get curious? The whole point of the last paragraph is to impugn modern science compared to Maori “ways of knowing.” Note too the denigration of the paper’s modelling, which was intended to see if New Zealand, given distance and wind, could account for the carbon spikes. The answer was “yes.”
My correspondent, who wishes to remain anonymous for obvious reasons (several signers of “The Listener” letter have been threatened), notes that there’s a very real possibility that Mātauranga Māori will at least nudge “real” science aside, and thus impede the growth of knowledge.
I shouldn’t have to point out that scientists who defend their discipline and the knowledge it produces should under no circumstances be put in danger of their jobs, careers, or reputations simply for defending the toolkit of science as the best way to understand nature.
New Zealand is a wonderful place, and I love it, but many of its residents have got to stop pretending that there are multiple ways of knowing that can be taken as science! There is no special “Maori science”; there’s just “science.”